Admittedly I am not a hardcore environmentalist. I recycle. I am mindful of what products have harmful chemicals in them and things like that, but not because I’m passionate about environmental conservation. I know that man-made detritus harms and kills ocean animals, but when I see styrofoam cups on the beach I don’t automatically imagine a sea turtle slowly and painfully starving to death because our waste is lodged in its throat. Some people do, though. These people are tapped into the dignity of non-human life in a special way, and realize how valuable the natural world is to us–now and generations from now. Yes, some environmentalists take their cause too far. Some look like whack-jobs and make life difficult for those who approach the cause with reason and maturity. But what is interesting about the environmental movement of the last few decades is the fundamental message. Nature is not an object for immediate gratification, but a sustaining resource for future life. It’s the basic principle from Genesis: tend what you are given so that it will continue to give back to you. Catholics call this principle “stewardship.”
Stewardship has three components, in particular order: gift, responsibility, reward. Stewards are given something that does not belong to them. This thing becomes the steward’s responsibility. While this thing is the steward’s responsibility, the steward shares the benefits that result from the thing. Stewardship has a concrete beginning, and a concrete end. As stewards of the Earth, we are supposed to remember that the natural world is first and foremost a gift to us. We are responsible for this gift, and can enjoy what it gives us in return, but it is not ours alone. We do not have ownership of the Earth. Ownership belongs to the creator of a thing, and what do we know is the principle doctrine of the faith? That God alone is Creator.
So in their own (sometimes weird) way, environmentalists reflect proper stewardship. While the Earth is important, there are created beings that take precedence. Us. Humans. We are the highest of created beings because we are made in the image and likeness of God. And this is confusing the hell out of us, because we are mistaking what is God’s for what is ours. Nowhere is this more obvious than with children.
Parents often make the mistake of thinking that their child is an extension of their selves. After all, a child comes out of a woman’s body and exhibits the physical, mental, and emotional traits of both parents. Children often seem to be mirrors of what is the best and worst of you and your partner. And there never seems to be any middle ground. It’s called Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome, and every parent watches their child(ren) go through it multiple times. Every. Freakin’. Day. It’s unsettling for the most self-confident of people to have the deepest, darkest parts of your personality exposed in such wild fashion; how much more so for those of us with self-esteem issues.
This is precisely the problem. Children are not extensions of our selves. They aren’t a piece of our body broken off and projected into the world. They are an entirely different person. Each child born has a unique soul specifically created for them by God. We don’t have the power to create souls, which is why we say that we cooperate in creation. We share the gift of creation, but we don’t own it. We are stewards of children, not owners. The four beautiful souls I gave birth to are mine insofar as God gave them to me to love and care for. It’s a vital distinction to remember.
The pressures of modern parenting are insane. There are so many different debates happening over every little detail involved in raising a child, but it boils down to this: parents who don’t produce children who are immediately reflective of civilized, cultured adults are failures. Both parent and child are robbed of dignity. The child has no identity apart from his parent(s), and the parent is no longer a person independent of her child. This is a gross disservice to personal dignity. It is tantamount to enslavement at the most fundamental level of society, because the pressure is on to mold one’s self and an entirely other person to an image that is not one’s own. In doing so, we all become caught up in a cycle of immediate gratification and condemnation. We become what we appear to be at any given moment. There’s no thought of what we could be, or should be. There’s no thought of where we came from, or what we came for. Our lives are but an instant on Earth, and so an instant is all we are giving ourselves to make an impression. It’s ownership in its bleakest glory.
Parents, we all should try to remember we are stewards to our kids. Like the environmentalists cherish nature for the unique and beautiful thing it is and will continue to be long after we are gone, imagine what the world would look like if we cherished our children the same way.